When people ask me about my favorite places in the world, I usually rattle off a couple places they might expect (like New Zealand and Scotland), but usually catch them a bit off-guard with another: I always cite the USA as one of my favorite places to travel. More specifically, the American Southwest.
The big skies, sprawling landscapes, and deep history of the American Southwest all draw me in, and will keep me coming back again and again. After multiple trips to this part of the country, I'm still discovering new things to see and do each time I visit.
What is the American Southwest?
First of all, let's define what the “American Southwest” actually is. It's obviously a geographical region of the United States. But just like with the Midwest, the Southwest can be defined differently depending on who you ask.
In general, though, the Southwest is going to definitely include the states of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and can also include parts of other states like Nevada, Colorado, and even California.
To me, the Southwest makes for the best road trip destination. There's a lot to see (national parks! monuments! historic sites! deserts! mountains!) in a fairly small area that's easily accessible from most of the rest of the US.
If you're dreaming of planning your own trip to this part of the US, here are some epic things you might want to add to your Southwest to-do list.
Your American Southwest bucket list: 25 things to do
This list is made up of (mostly outdoor) things you can only do in the Southwest USA! Here's a map of all the sites featured here:
And now on to the detailed list!
1. Watch a sunset at the Grand Canyon
Let's start with probably the most famous spot in the Southwest: the Grand Canyon. This 277-mile-long canyon is an iconic part of America, and you can see some of the best parts of it within Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
Most of the Grand Canyon's visitors visit the South Rim, which is the more-accessible side of the canyon, with services at Grand Canyon Village and several other small towns just outside the park. This is the part of the park you'll see the most in photos.
The other option is to visit the quieter North Rim, which has fewer services and viewpoints, but also fewer visitors. The downside is that the North Rim is only open to visitors from May-October.
Viewpoint-hopping and hiking at the Grand Canyon is well worth doing, too, but if you only put one Grand Canyon-specific activity on your list, make it watching a sunset.
Popular spots to catch a sunset include Mather Point, Hopi Point, and Yavapai Point. Make sure to arrive early to get a good spot, and to watch the colors in the canyon change with the sunlight. Even in winter, a Grand Canyon sunset is worth catching.
2. Visit the Mighty 5
Utah is home to 5 of the United States' 63 national parks, and these red-hued beauties are collectively known as The Mighty 5. The parks making up the Mighty 5 are Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.
The Mighty 5 national parks have all the incredible landscape elements that make the Southwest so special, from red sandstone arches to pink cliffs to jagged peaks and hoodoos.
READ MORE: The Mighty 5: Utah’s Stunning National Parks
The Mighty 5 are also home to some of the most iconic hikes in this part of the world…
3. Hike Angels Landing or The Narrows at Zion
Zion National Park often gets listed as peoples' favorite national park in America. And I agree that you'll never forget your first drive into Zion Canyon.
You can certainly visit Zion without hiking, but a lot of people visit this national park for its iconic hikes. Namely, Angels Landing and The Narrows.
Angels Landing is a tough 5-mile hike, with the last half mile spent climbing a narrow spine of rock using chains to help navigate. I did this hike in 2016, and it was equal parts terrifying and epic. The views at the top of Angels Landing made it all worth it.
The Narrows is Zion's second iconic hike, and includes physically hiking IN the Virgin River through the narrowest parts of Zion Canyon. You can do portions of this hike (anywhere from 1-10 miles) in a day, or get a permit to do the full 16-mile round-trip.
You can also do The Narrows as a guided hike, which isn't a bad idea if you've never tried a hike like this before!
4. Hike to see Delicate Arch at sunset
My second-favorite Utah national park for hiking has to be Arches. Arches National Park is great to visit as a non-hiker, too, but being able to hike up to and around some of the parks more famous sandstone arches definitely makes a visit more memorable.
If you only do one longer hike at Arches, it's gotta be the hike out to Delicate Arch (the arch that graces Utah's license plates). Go an hour or two before sunset, bring a picnic dinner, and watch the arch change colors as the sun sets.
It wasn't until my second visit to Arches that I managed to do this hike, but it was definitely worth the wait!
5. Hike the Navajo Loop at Bryce Canyon
The last Mighty 5 hike that I think is a must-do is the Navajo Loop at Bryce Canyon. Clocking in at just 1.4 miles, this hike is easily do-able in just an hour or two, but really packs a punch.
That's because this route takes you down into the jagged hoodoos that Bryce Canyon is known for, giving you a completely different perspective of the postcard-perfect scenes.
To add a little more length and variation in rock formations, you can link up with the Queens Garden Trail, making the whole hike roughly 3 miles.
My husband and I did this hike in the rain and fog, and still loved it.
6. Take a tour of Monument Valley
It's tough to pinpoint my absolute favorite spot in the Southwest, but if you forced me to choose, Monument Valley would probably be at the top of my list.
Monument Valley is a 92,000-acre Tribal Park owned by the Navajo Nation that straddles the Utah and Arizona border. The park is known for its vast red landscape and unique buttes and rock formations.
Monument Valley is the epitome of what many Americans picture when they think of “the West.” This is in no small part due to the fact that the iconic landscape has starred as the backdrop of several Hollywood classics, including John Wayne movies.
You can drive the 17-mile loop drive here in your own vehicle, but I highly recommend booking a separate Navajo-guided tour into the Monument Valley backcountry (like this one). You'll see and learn so much.
7. Play in the dunes at White Sands
While not as famous or flashy as some of the other national parks on this list, White Sands is nevertheless a favorite of mine. It's a new(er) national park as of December 2019 – previously it was an underrated national monument.
White Sands National Park is filled with 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes, with sand so white that it often looks like snow. The environment here is incredibly unique, and it's something you really need to see for yourself to fully appreciate.
You can hike the sand dunes here, but to fully enjoy the experience, you need to engage in some sand sledding. You can purchase waxed plastic snow saucers at the gift shop (yup, this activity is totally NPS-approved!), and then have fun with them on the dunes.
Also be sure to stick around to witness one of the desert's amazing sunsets.
8. Hike at the Grand Canyon
You can absolutely visit the Grand Canyon without doing any hiking, but if you want to get your blood pumping, the are hiking options that last anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days.
Popular hikes at the Grand Canyon include:
- Rim Trail – This trail runs for 12 miles along the South Rim. It's mostly flat and mostly paved, and you can walk any portion of it between viewpoints.
- South Kaibab Trail – An easier 1.8-mile hike that takes you down a little ways into the canyon, including to Ooh-Aah Point.
- Bright Angel Trail – This 9.2-mile day hike takes you down into the canyon; it's a strenuous trail.
- Rim-to-Rim – This hike is not an easy one, and is 24 miles one-way. People usually take 2-3 days to complete this one.
Another popular hike in this part of the Southwest is the hike to Havasu Falls. While not inside Grand Canyon National Park (it's on Havasupai tribal lands), it's still within the Grand Canyon. This hike is 10 miles one-way, and you have to enter a lottery in order to secure a 3-day permit to do it. Permits go on sale once per year (usually February 1), and sell out almost immediately.
9. Raft the Colorado river
The Colorado River begins at its source high up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. But the 1,450-mile-long river is only named for the state it originates it; it traverses 7 different US states (and 2 Mexican states) in total. You've probably heard of it as the river that carved out the Grand Canyon.
If whitewater rafting is on your bucket list, then rafting the Colorado will be right up your alley. There are lots of options, from rafting day trips to weeklong adventures.
Popular parts of the Colorado to raft include Westwater Canyon and Cataract Canyon in Utah, and of course the Grand Canyon itself in Arizona. (Grand Canyon rafting trips are always multi-day, though.)
If you want to read about a multi-day trip like this, check out my friend Sherry's report from a 10-day Grand Canyon rafting trip.
If you're looking for a slightly tamer rafting trip on the Colorado, my pick would be a half-day trip from Page, Arizona, that includes floating around the famous Horseshoe Bend.
10. Explore slot canyons in Page
Page, Arizona, is a popular stop on most Southwest road trips. It's a good stopping-off point between Moab in Utah and the Grand Canyon (especially if you travel via Monument Valley), but it has its own draws – mostly in the form of slot canyons.
Page is known for its slot canyons like Antelope Canyon. These canyons are narrow and not too deep, having been carved out by rushing water during flash floods. Because of how they're formed, these canyons have fascinating swirling rock formations inside.
The most popular canyons to visit around Page include:
- Upper Antelope Canyon (famous for its light beams)
- Lower Antelope Canyon
- Canyon X
- Rattlesnake Canyon
- Cardiac Canyon
Just note that many of the slot canyons in this area lie on Navajo land, meaning you'll have to visit on a guided tour.
11. Visit living heritage at Taos Pueblo
Most people associate the Southwest with its stunning landscapes, which is fair. But the area is also home to some fascinating history that you shouldn't overlook.
One of my favorite historical spots is Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico. This UNESCO World Heritage site represents “living heritage,” because not only is it home to an ancient pueblo, but it's also still a living, working community; people still live inside.
Visiting Taos Pueblo is a fascinating history lesson, and I highly recommend it.
12. See other ancient Indigenous ruins
Speaking of ruins and history, the Southwest has no shortage of these sites – and I think we should all visit more of them!
Some interesting sites that preserve and celebrate the history of ancient peoples in the US include:
- Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, known for its preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona, which protects a set of well-preserved ancient dwellings.
- Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, known mostly for its landscapes, but also for its ancient ruins and prehistoric rock art.
- Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico, which includes some Pueblo ruins.
13. Visit the Death Valley salt flats
It's debatable whether this part of California is truly in the Southwest or not, but I think the extreme landscapes at Death Valley National Park qualify it.
You can go hiking, enjoy scenic drives and viewpoints, and see all sorts of crazy rock formations at Death Valley. But if you only visit one place, I would make it the otherworldly salt flats of Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point elevation-wise in North America.
14. Be awed at the International Balloon Fiesta
There are hot air balloon gatherings, races, and festivals throughout the western United States. But the epitome of hot air balloon festivals is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held in New Mexico each fall.
This 9-day balloon fiesta draws more than 500 different hot air balloons and balloon pilots each October. There is nothing quite like watching hundreds of balloons rise into the morning sky like you can witness at the Mass Ascension each day of the event.
15. Drive Old Route 66
The classic Route 66 is a US highway that stretched from Chicago all the way to the Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles. Today, I-40 and other byways have replaced US Highway 66, but a lot of the original route still exists.
Part of Old Route 66 still passes through New Mexico and Arizona, and several towns along the historic highway are now delightfully kitschy roadside attractions. In Arizona, the small town of Seligman makes for a fun pit stop on the way from Flagstaff to Las Vegas.
16. Play the lottery to visit The Wave
This item isn't further up the list because it's incredibly difficult to actually do! You may have seen photos of “The Wave,” a rock formation in Arizona near the border with Utah that's memorable for its dipping, twisting swirls of white and red rock.
The Wave is found found in the Coyote Buttes North in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area, and can only be visited with a permit. In order to get a permit for the hike, you have to enter a lottery through the Bureau of Land Management.
Only 20 people are allowed to visit per day. If you manage to win a permit, the hike out to The Wave isn't easy – there are no formal marked trails, and the shortest route is 6 miles roundtrip.
17. Hike in the Valley of Fire
If you want to see landscape very similar to what's at The Wave without the need to enter a lottery, spend a day in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. Only an hour from Las Vegas, this is one of my favorite day trips to take from Sin City.
For Wave-like landscapes, hike the Fire Wave trail. It's a fairly easy hike that's only 1.25 miles roundtrip, but ends at some amazing layered rock formations.
The White Domes Trail is also great to hike (and includes a small slot canyon), and I also highly recommend climbing around the Beehives, driving White Domes Road (a few times), and stopping to see petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock.
There are even guided hiking tours you can book to Valley of Fire.
18. Stay at a wellness resort in Scottsdale
The Southwest doesn't have to be ALL about hiking and red desert landscapes. If you're looking for a more luxurious getaway, I highly recommend heading to the artsy city of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Shop at art galleries, eat delicious food, and get out into the Sonoran Desert to get up close and personal with the saguaro cacti that are unique to southern Arizona.
Scottsdale has some incredibly unique hotels, from the mid-century modern Hotel Valley Ho (which used to be *the* getaway for Hollywood's hottest stars) to desert wellness retreats like CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa.
19. Get underground at Carlsbad Caverns
Everything on this list so far has been above ground. But let's talk about something below ground, too! Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a cave system in southern New Mexico consisting of more than 100 caves.
The most popular things to do at Carlsbad Caverns include visiting the Big Room (the largest cave), and watching thousands of bats exiting the caves at dusk during the summer months. Above the caves lies the Chihuahuan Desert, which is worth exploring, too.
20. Visit a vortex in Sedona
Whether it's hiking, art, adventure, or spirituality you're looking for, you'll find it all in Sedona, Arizona. This small city is considered a “desert town,” but the desert here consists of red rock buttes, pine forests, and canyons.
There are lots of outdoor activities to try in Sedona, from Jeep tours to hiking to playing at nearby state parks like Slide Rock. But a cool thing to put on your bucket list is visiting one of Sedona's famous vortexes.
Sedona has four different Vortex sites, or natural spots that are thought to have special sources of energy that contribute to meditation and healing. You can visit a couple of these on your own, or book a Vortex tour.
Either way, this is a great way to explore some of Sedona's incredible scenery.
21. Play hide and seek with some goblins
While the Southwest has some amazing national parks to visit, it has lots of state parks worth a stop, too! In Utah, one of my favorite state parks is Goblin Valley State Park, a tiny park roughly halfway between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks.
Goblin Valley is known for its mushroom-like rock formations (the “goblins”) and sandstone cliffs. It's a really fun place to wander around for a few hours, and is always far less crowded than Utah's famous national parks.
You can even go canyoneering here if you're feeling adventurous!
22. Marvel at the Hoover Dam
If you're planning to drive between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, you're going to be passing by the Hoover Dam anyway – so you may as well stop to marvel at this incredible piece of engineering up close.
The Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s to tame the Colorado River. Today, its power station supplies power to Nevada, Arizona, and California. Stop by to learn more about this engineering feat by taking a tour of the dam.
23. Get up in the air
This one won't be for everyone (and especially not for anyone who is afraid of heights!), but there are several chances to get up above some of the incredible landscapes in the Southwest.
Some that are popular include:
- Doing a helicopter tour – Lots of people fly over the Grand Canyon, but I've also done a heli tour in Utah near Zion National Park (like this one), which was equally amazing.
- Going up in a hot air balloon – I've done this in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, the most recent time being last year in Phoenix!
24. Stay on a houseboat on Lake Powell
On my first road trip through the Southwest, my sister and I spent a few nights in the town of Page, Arizona. We also took a sunset cruise on nearby Lake Powell, and ever since then I've been obsessed with the idea of renting a houseboat there.
This is a popular accommodation option at the south end of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and you don't even need a boating license in order to rent one. It's on the “next time” list for me.
25. Tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West
If you love landscape AND architecture like I do, then you won't want to skip visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West near Scottsdale, Arizona.
Taliesin West was architect Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school for more than 20 years, from 1937 until his death in 1959. The house is now open for tours, where you can visit the rooms that Wright used in everyday life, and learn about some of the unique features of the home/school.
Taliesin West is now part of a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, too, making this even more of a must-do in my opinion.
For further Southwest reading…
- A Perfect 10-Day Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- The Amazing American Southwest in Photos
- 4 Reasons to Visit the American Southwest in Winter
- The Mighty 5: Utah’s Stunning National Parks
- Yes, You Can Visit the Grand Canyon in Winter
- Everything You Need to Know About Visiting White Sands National Park
- Monument Valley: A Must-Visit in the American Southwest
- Valley of Fire: The Best Day Trip from Las Vegas
- St. George, Utah: More Than Just a Gateway to Zion
- How to Spend 3 Days in Scottsdale, Arizona
- The Hoover Dam: A Modern Feat of Engineering
Okay, okay. So it's actually impossible to narrow the entire Southwest down to just 25 things to do! There are so many more that I could have included. Here are a few more honorable mentions:
Visit the Painted Desert – With so many incredible landscapes to choose from, I couldn't include them all. But the Painted Desert (a stretch of colorful badlands in northeastern Arizona) is worth a detour, too. It's most easily accessed from the northern portion of Petrified Forest National Park.
Get weird in Roswell – Are you into kitsch? How about conspiracies? Both are melded delightfully in the town of Roswell, New Mexico, which is mostly known for UFOs and aliens today. Stop by the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and be sure to bring your camera when you visit Alien Zone.
Ride a famous train – There are some historic trains that run through the Southwest, including the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (in Colorado), and the Grand Canyon Railway (which runs from Williams, AZ, to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon).
Go glamping – Sure, you can stay in hotels and motels throughout the Southwest, but if you're up for more of an adventure, consider glamping! Glamping is just fancy camping. You sleep in a tent or yurt, but one that's tricked out with a real bed and sometimes even a full bathroom. I really like Under Canvas, which has glamping sites near the Grand Canyon, in Moab (Utah), and near Zion National Park in the Southwest. My sister and I stayed at one of their camps near Yellowstone a few years ago and loved it!
Hopefully this list has inspired you to start planning your next trip to the American Southwest!
Which of these things are you adding to YOUR Southwest bucket list?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!